this is not a review: ‘when we were alone’, by david a. robertson (pics, julie flett)

A little girl and her grandmother tend a garden and as they do the girl asks simple questions about the beautiful clothing the grandmother wears, the luxurious style of her hair, the language she whispers as she feeds a bird…

The grandmother tells what life was like when she was the child’s age and still lived at home, in her “community”. She talks about friends and traditions and then refers to the school she went to, described only as being “far away from home” where things were very different. The child asks why they cut her hair, why Cree was a forbidden language and each time the grandmother offers a gentle sliver of truth, ending with some version of: “They wanted us to be like everybody else.”

The title is a reference to the instinct for their sense (and survival) of ‘self’, the small pleasures they found in things like the colour of leaves and braiding grass into their shorn hair.

I love this book for its story of courage and strength, but also for its structure, the rhythm of the questions and answers, the repetition of certain lines, especially the reference to a school that was “far away from home”… (which surely begs the question from any young reader/listener as to why  it was so far away). I love the beautiful illustrations by Julie Flett (the colour palette, all rich earth tones and vivid brights alternating with the institutional monotones of muted greys and brown). But mostly I love this book because it invites children who know nothing about the history of residential schools to ask questions of their own, and so maybe, and gently, we can begin a conversation long overdue.

When We Were Alone  can be purchased on-line from Blue Heron Books and Hunter Street Books, which I only mention because they’re two of my faves.

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this is not a review: ‘the education of augie merasty’, by augie merasty with david carpenter


You may think this is a story you know—residential school horrors.

Or at least one that’s already been told.

You’d be wrong on both counts.fsp-050420151

While the gist of the horrors has been conveyed over the years in books about  the horrors… and documentaries about the people involved in the horrors… and articles in magazines and papers, more and more in recent years covering the horrors from various angles… still, all of that is different than this book, which is a personal account by a man, now in his eighties, who lived  the horrors from age eight to fourteen.

Joseph Auguste Merasty.

What makes his account in The Education of Augie Merasty   different from what we already know about the story is that he’s able to tell the story at all.

He’s an alcoholic, often homeless, sometimes in rehab. Many of the people who shared his childhood are also drunks, druggies or dead. Many by suicide.

Most of them aren’t writing memoirs.

That’s the familiar part. That and the abuse, the hypocrisy, the cover-up, the abdication by governments, and so on. The surprising part is that this isn’t the stuff Merasty wants to talk about. He wants to keep things positive. For his own sanity I suspect. How he finds The Positive is both a testament to the power of survival and a tiny miracle of human spirit.

In 2001 he writes to the University of Saskatchewan asking for someone to help him get his story on paper, someone with a “good command of the English language”.

The someone turns out to be David Carpenter, a professor at the university.

In his compelling introduction Carpenter explains the process of meeting and communicating with Merasty, a retired trapper who is hard to pin down and not especially disciplined or organized about handing in his notes.

The back and forth goes on for more than a decade.

The memoir itself takes something like 75 short pages. Merasty begins by listing what he refers to as the ‘kind’ or ‘jolly’ people at the school. What he’s really doing is working himself up to remember the not so jolly.

“It was that fall that I first laid eyes on the one human I would dislike… for the rest of my life… but I will not talk about him now. I want to keep talking about the nice ones.”

The “nice ones” include people who would throw blocks of wood at the children and call them bastards, occasionally strapping them.

“…but [they were] okay.”

It’s the others that were the problem. Right…

At no point does he get maudlin nor does he blame. He simply says here are some of the things that happened. We know enough about the story that he doesn’t have to tell us the gruesome details. I’m guessing the details are the irrelevant part anyway. I mean how hard do you have to hit a kid, how many times do you sexually abuse them, how long do you starve them, what kinds of names or threats or other horrors do you hurl at them or force them to live through before it matters enough that it needs to be added to the list?

That it happened at all is the point.

And that thousands upon thousand of lives have been affected by not only the abuse but the way the rest of the world turned its head. Still turns its head. There’s the point.

Details, well, they’re just that.

There are a few though.

The time he and a friend each lost a mitten on an outing the day before and were made to retrace their steps in minus 40 temperatures. He didn’t find his mitten and on his return he was strapped twenty times on each hand. He was eleven years old. There was the stale porridge they ate while watching trolleys with white linen and fresh eggs, meat and cake being delivered to the adults.  There was the dreaded Brother Lepeigne, sexual abuse, beatings for smiling, for accidentally farting. For nothing.

“I figured now the reason… was to keep my mouth shut about the sexual abuse. He did a good job because I have never told anyone about those assaults until now. They were too painful and shameful to me, and I would have been the laughing-stock for everyone, even to this day.”

The reason to read this book is not to know his story, because I suspect there’s much that isn’t being told, that can’t be told, even now. The reason to read it is to understand the courage it took to write it. And to understand that there are thousands and thousands and thousands for whom he speaks.

The residential school system ran from the 1840’s to 1996. Think about that.

The last entry in the book is a drawing, a sketch Merasty has made of a northern scene, apropos of nothing that has come in the pages before and yet it makes perfect sense. It’s perfect, because it rings true.

“… I want to end with this good memory of the fishing and all the reindeer up north.”


More about the book here.

The Education of Augie Merasty  (University of Regina Press) can be ordered online at Blue Heron Books.

this is not a review: indian horse by richard wagamese


I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I began reading Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse . Everyone seems to be talking about it, I’d seen reviews, it’s a Canada Reads contender. I knew there was hockey. I’d heard the descriptions: ‘powerful’, ‘stunning’, ‘heartbreaking’. But I hadn’t heard the details.

Now I understand why.

The details are hard to talk about, hard to accept. Harder still to read but impossible to stop reading.

The in-a-nutshell version is this: An Ojibway man who is a mess due to a family history of residential schools, booze and unemployment, ends up in rehab after almost making it to the NHL.

If you think you’ve heard the story before, believe me, you haven’t. Not like this.

The book opens with images of life before the white man, before indigenous peoples were made to accept a pittance for the job of helping the government devastate their own land, before they beganindianhorse trading berries for bottles.

It soon moves ahead a few generations with the focus on Saul Indian Horse’s childhood and family: a nurturing grandmother; a father who’s fine when he’s working but work for Indians is rare; a mother who is already a wreck from her own years at residential school and is now forced to watch as her children are taken to the same place, one at gunpoint.

Saul himself ends up at the school—where, among other atrocities, children die standing up, bodies hang from rafters, wrists are slashed on bathroom floors and a young girl fills her pockets with stones and calmly walks into the creek to drown. Where another child, already dead inside, speaks matter-of-factly about the priest and the nuns coming to her in the night to share “god’s love”.

“They called it a school, but it was never that….There were no tests or examinations. The only test was our ability to survive.”

Despite the horrors there is not a trace of rancour in the writing, not one gratuitous scene to drive home a point. Quite the opposite in fact. Wagamese wields a strong but subtle hand on the subject, the power being in what’s left unsaid. One gets the terrible idea that what Saul knows, what any of us know, is merely the tip of the iceberg.

How Wagamese kept what must be his own deeply rooted feelings out of the story, focussing only on Saul, telling The Bigger Story through him… is a feat not many writers manage, much less manage so beautifully.

“When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness.”

Escape for Saul comes in the form of hockey—and these are some of the most beautiful passages in the book. While I can watch a game and be soothed by the sound of skates on ice, puck meeting wood—even though I really know very little about what’s going on—I didn’t think I’d like reading about hockey and it was one of the reasons I initially hesitated picking up the book. Turns out reading about hockey the way Wagamese writes it is an utter joy, even for someone who doesn’t know a crease from a blue line. The passion and lyricism of those chapters could easily be applied to a description of any artist or athlete doing what they love.

Saul has the talent of a Gretzky or a Crosbie and he moves quickly up the ranks, becomes a local hero where ‘hockey brings unity to a fractured society’ and “Every reserve in the North had a team.” But the system has him move up even higher, to minor leagues, to big city games in the south where an Indian on skates is an event, a cause for racist headlines, jeering and jokes.

“During one game [the fans] broke into a ridiculous war chant whenever I stepped onto the ice…. When I scored, the ice was littered with plastic Indian dolls… A cartoon in one of the papers showed me in a hockey helmet festooned with eagle feathers, holding a war lance instead of a hockey stick.”

What once was his salvation proves to be just another thing that belongs to the white man. Hockey is metaphor for the “white man’s game”… the game of life. They expect him to play the role of savage Indian, and eventually, fueled by a lifetime of suppressed rage, and against his better instincts, he obliges them.

From there he spirals down until he’s at the New Dawn Rehab Centre where he discovers perhaps the most difficult layer of his past [a shocker I did not see coming…] and begins the long process of healing.

This is the part of the book that was hardest to take. We white folk in Canada pride ourselves on our multiculturalism, our supposedly easy acceptance of all races. But we don’t talk about the aboriginal population when we talk about race and racism. We don’t talk about the aboriginal population at all. Because, well, they live “up there somewhere” and very little that happens to them is reported in mainstream media, and even when it is, it’s a news blip not a serious problem. Contaminated water in Walkerton? A very big deal. Heads rolled. In Attawapiskat? Where’s that?

Ditto mould, insufficient housing, suicide.

But it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t know.

The Idle No More Movement has shown, at least to some degree, that there are large numbers of us, people of all description, that do care. And we crave information. Yes, we can ferret it out online, but perhaps the day has come where equal air time and ink in mainstream media is given to aboriginal issues.

The long and short of it is this: we know too little about the history of native communities. For this reason books like Indian Horse are important in that they convey a hard story that needs not only to be told to heal the teller—but heard, to help heal our world.

Indian Horse  is available for purchase on-line at Blue Heron Books. 

And Hunter Street Books.

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